2017 Melbourne Writers Festival
Asia What?: Indigenous Connections
We are at the Melbourne Writers Festival, at the first session of Asia What? The line-up is impressive; the room is full. Bruce Pascoe joins WrICE Fellow Steven Winduo to discuss the topic of Indigenous Connections. Eugenia Flynn chairs.
It is the first day of Spring, but Flynn points out that it is also the beginning of the Poorneet Tadpole season, one of the seven seasons observed by the Kulin people. This observance situates us on indigenous land—the land of the Kulin Nation. It reminds us that the concept of spring is an imported one.
Throughout this session we are reminded of many such cultural overlays, and few that are benign. But that is not the focus of this discussion. Rather it is a lively and intelligent meditation on indigeneity, on talking back and speaking up, on what we can learn, and how we can be better.
Refuting euro-centric ideas is central to Pascoe’s award-winning book, Dark Emu. Drawing on the accounts of early explorers, Pascoe has assembled evidence of the extensive agricultural and irrigation practices of Australia’s first people. These accounts contradict the terra nullius view of Aboriginal people as hunter-gatherers. Is it unsurprising, he asks, that these accounts never made it into our history books? Pascoe concludes that selective publishing was part of a deliberate and coordinated attempt to devalue the heritage of Australia’s first people.
Winduo agrees. The indigenous people of Papua New Guinea have rarely been given a voice. He believes that communities need to write about their place—to preserve stories of the land and ancestors and to recognise their group, their clan, their tribe. It is these reflections that give meaning and purpose to how communities engage with the world.
‘We need our people’s stories to find our way home, to lay our claim.’
As Flynn points out, indigenous knowledge is tied to its people—people who have survived and resisted. But their culture is not necessarily visible, and certainly, their voices are underrepresented. As Winduo says, ‘Where is the book I can buy and read about it?’
Looking to the future, Pascoe asks what would it look like if all Australians studied an Indigenous curriculum:
‘We need to learn concrete things from Indigenous culture —not feelings, or stories, but the meanings of those stories…[this continent] was managed really well for a long period of time.’
Pascoe suggests indigenous cultures present alternative ways to organise resources. Certainly, there are common elements of indigenous worldview that span, what Winduo calls, ‘the Pacific we all share.’ The focus on ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. The sharing culture. Pascoe asks, ‘What would a world look like where people are rewarded for being good citizens rather than having vast amounts of wealth?’
The question is timely, Winduo suggests, given the consumption pattern of industrial nations has pushed us to the edge.
All agree. It is time to look to indigenous knowledge.